Dark Folklore is a new short story series inspired by myths and monsters from around the world.
I love discovering folklore in all its flavors… from elusive beasties that stalk the aging forests to twisting fates in fairytales told from the shadows of a campfire. The more obscure and sinister the tale, the better.
Dark Folklore is a series to indulge this love. Each installment is inspired by a folk legend from a different country, reimagined in a modern setting with new twists and themes. More than just a retelling: each short story is a new, original tale. Expect some spooky vibes and a few unhappy endings… but also the odd uplifting one as well.
The first installment of Dark Folklore releases on Tuesday 3rd May: a story called Beyond Thundering Waters. With a lush Norwegian setting surrounded by mountains and waterfalls, this story draws on a menacing interpretation of the huldra (one of my favourite folkloric creatures). Ida, a young girl still grieving the loss of her mother, must race against time to save her Pappa from the clutches of her own wild valley and the huldra who would keep them apart.
This story is already live for preorder on all the usual storefronts. Stay tuned for a special Launch Day Giveaway: I’ll be handing out TEN free copies of Beyond Thundering Waters via my blog, and even more copies via social media and my newsletter!
So remember to hit the Follow button on my website, and check out my socials on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Subscribe to my newsletter (and receive another free short story) by clicking here.
During our usual short British Summer earlier this year – that very briefly sunny bit – I took a holiday down to Cornwall with my family. I had the pleasure of visiting some locations that feature in The Jack Hansard Series, and in this post I’d like to shine a spotlight on one in particular: Trethevy Quoit.
First, for those who might not know much about Cornwall: this county occupies the most southwestern tip of England and is known particularly for its old tin mining industry, its port towns and beautiful beaches, and the vast number of prehistoric monuments that litter its moorland landscape. And, of course, the traditional Cornish Pasty.
Cornwall is also the home of knockers, a type of mining spirit which will be very familiar to Jack Hansard readers. It’s during an adventure with the knockers in Season Two that Jack and Ang are sent to the myserious portal tomb known as Trethevy Quoit.
Trethevy Quoit can be found in the hamlet of Tremar Coombe on the edge of Bodmin Moor. Situated in a field just behind some houses, it’s a striking mark on the landscape. This type of structure is known as a ‘dolmen’ or portal tomb, where a horizontal capstone is supported by two or more vertical stones. Trethevy Quoit is at least 4500 years old, and may have been built as a grave and/or a place of worship. (The truth is, we don’t actually know for certain what it was built for, but human remains have been found in similar dolmens.)
‘Trethevy’ is apparently Cornish for ‘place of the graves’, while the ‘Quoit’ in the name refers to a traditional throwing game – because local legend says that Trethevy Quoit was made by competing giants who hurled the stones together. This is why some people also call it ‘The Giant’s House’.
I owe a great deal of thanks to a local chap called Clifford who happened to be passing while I was examining the tomb. He turned out to be a wealth of information and theories about the dolmen and how it was built.
In the photo above, we’re looking at the entrance. The small hole to my right leads to what is probably a burial chamber – you’d have to crawl inside. The space where I’m standing may have been an antechamber. Clifford was able to show me the grooves in the rock that suggested a massive stone may have once acted as a ‘door’ to this section: regularly pushed aside to allow access for special occasions, perhaps. It’s likely that dolmens could have served a ritual purpose, maybe a focal point bringing the community together over the changing seasons.
And that hole in the capstone, to the top right? Total mystery. No one knows what it was for. You’d assume some kind of astronomical purpose, but Clifford tells me there are no significant constellations visible through it, at any time of the year. But who are we to say what was ‘significant’ to people living thousands of years ago?
It also crossed my mind that the hole may have been placed to frame something which simply isn’t in the sky any more. Stars die. Land shifts. Or perhaps a comet was passing by in their time, and hasn’t returned to the earth since.
At the back, it appears that the rear stone has fallen into the tomb, and this may be why the roof is now so steeply slanted. Clifford’s theory is that the tomb was actually built this way, with the rear sloped stone acting as a second entrance. While I appreciated the logic in his explanation, I’m more inclined to side with the English Heritage interpretation that the stone was originally standing to form a back wall. Vandalism or simple collapse are likely reasons for its current position.
Finally, Clifford drew my attention to the capstone itself. It so happens that a mineral called mica naturally occurs in different concentrations in the granite of the local area. Mica is a reflective material that can give the stone a sparkly appearance. And, to my great fortune, it was a sunny day.
My goodness, how that stone sparkled.
It’s easy to imagine why the builders of Trethevy Quoit chose this specific stone to cap their dolmen. This structure would have dominated its local landscape, provided a shining beacon to those traversing the nearby hills. If you’ve ever been up a hill and caught a sudden sharp glint from a building in the distance – that’s how I imagine Trethevy Quoit would first appear to the ancient traveller.
One detail that throws a question mark over this is whether Trethevy Quoit was completely buried inside a mount or not. A low mound of earth is still evident around the bottom of the structure, and certainly other types of dolmen tombs are thought to have been covered by a mound – the soil has simply eroded away over time, leaving behind the stone bones of the inner structure. But perhaps its feasible that a capstone like this one would have been left visible? As far as I’m aware, we have no real way of knowing for sure how large Trethevy Quoit’s mound would have been.
I’m glad I was able to visit this megalith in person – especially as it gave me a lot of new details to work into the Jack Hansard episode in which it appears. If you’ve read the beta episode over on Wattpad, you’ll know this location acts as the portal to a fairy glen where an ancient entity has been slumbering.
We also managed to fit in a trip to see The Hurlers and the Cheesewring during our trip – for a few more photos and snippets of Cornish folklore, check out the newsletter I wrote about it back in June. I also visited Cornwall’s famous Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, which I imagine will be the subject of a future blog post!
Have you visited any of Cornwall’s ancient monuments? Share your stories about them below!
The door slammed open in the force of the storm. The fisherman shrank away from his new bride, his retreat blocked by the invading tempest. She sat, demure, fragile; big seal eyes staring out from under long lashes.
‘I didn’t know,’ he moaned. ‘God help me.’
He watched the fur coat slough off her body like shedded skin, revealing naked flesh beneath. She held out a plaintive hand and barked, a seal’s bark.
He trembled, caught like a fish in a net. Her kiss was colder than the sea. It turned his blood to salt on his tongue.
This is another short I wrote for the 2018 Southam Flash Fiction Competition, which required stories to be under 100 words and to contain the prase ‘the door slammed’ somewhere in the work. I set myself an informal ‘folklore’ theme to tie my stories together. They were a lot of fun to write.
A friend told me that she laughed out loud at the selkie’s ‘bark’ in this piece though. Not quite the effect I was going for…
It’s been a while since we’ve had a good look at some folklore, isn’t it? Under the spotlight today is a Japanese cultural and religious object – the omamori – which is a surprisingly common item of stock sold by our favourite occult tradesman:
Peggy straightened her notes. “Honestly, Jack, you’re never prepared. You never know when you might need something as simple as a pen and paper.”
“I’m prepared in different ways,” I said, patting the protective paper charms in my pockets.
“Jack, when have your charms ever actually worked?”
“They all work!” I said, indignantly. This, at least, was true. I don’t often lie to my customers (that’s a lie, part of me pointed out), it’s just that I sometimes omit important information. I will give a lifetime guarantee, on my word and my honour as a tradesman, that every one of my protective omamori charms are in fine working order. What I can’t guarantee, however, is what they protect you against.
Omamori is a name given to a type of Japanese amulet: loosely translated, it means ‘protection’. Omamori normally take the form of a rectangle of patterned silk which contains prayers, the name of a god, or other religious text written on paper or wood. They exist as charms of good luck, or to act as wards against bad juju. Whether providing good luck to help pass a driving test, for example – or avoiding the bad juju of traffic jams – the main function of omamori is protection.
Omamori are a shared aspect of Japan’s two major religions: Shinto and Buddhism. Both have several varying branches of tradition so it’s hard to sum them up briefly – but I’ll try. You might describe Shinto as a religion that grew out of a rich body of native mythology and which is structured around belief in a huge host of gods and spirits (also known as kami) who can have both positive and negative effects on the world. Kami can include personifications of nature, natural forces, and even ancestral human spirits. Meanwhile, Buddhism was introduced later to Japan from its spread through China, and might be considered a more philosophical doctrine based heavily on the teachings of the Buddha – the central tenet being a realisation of the temporary nature of life and the ongoing cycle of rebirth.
Omamori charms are usually dedicated to one of these Shinto kami or a key Buddhist figure, and they are designed to provide a very specific brand of luck or protection. Charms to protect your health and ward off illness, for example, are quite common. If you’re going on a long journey, there’s an omamori to keep you safe while you travel – it’s particularly popular with bus and taxi drivers! A student might buy a charm specifically designed to bring luck in their education, especially during exam-season. If you can think of it, there’s probably an omamori for it.
“I’ve learned over time, and through an array of consumer complaints, that my stock of oriental paper charms can variously protect against finding moles in the garden, slight breezes, rains of fish, tripping over on a Sunday, burning your tongue on hot tea, sneezing in alleyways, and success – one charm so counter-intuitive that I could’ve sold it as a revenge curse if only I’d known what it did at the time.”
If you hadn’t already guessed, these little amulets are still hugely popular in Japan today and can be bought from the vast majority of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. The modern omamori is bright and colourful and most are designed to hang from things like bags and straps. You can even buy them in less traditional forms such as car bumper stickers, phone charms, and (my personal favourite) memory cards to protect your digital data and electronic devices! The key thing is that a true omamori will have been properly blessed and so infused with power before use.
Good news for tourists: buying omamori as souvenirs is encouraged – it’s a nice way to participate in Japanese culture and support the shrine or temple you are visiting.
I for one am saving up my pennies. I’d love to visit Japan some day.
Peggy’s face lit up. I don’t think she gets enough opportunity to show off all that knowledge she stores up from being around books all day. “Well, the phoenix is a mythical regenerating bird that is said to live forever. Or rather, it begets a new phoenix from the remains of the old, sort of asexually reproducing. Most commonly it’s thought to die in a burst of flame and then be reborn anew in the ashes. Tales about the phoenix range across the world and through the ages: there’s the Greek historian Herodotus who suggests the phoenix is native to Arabia but flies to Egypt to be reborn; Pliny the Elder catalogues a possible live specimen sent to the Roman Emperor Claudius (but that one’s probably a fake); it crops up in all sorts of medieval bestiaries, and of course in religious imagery and symbolism, you know how popular the idea of rebirth is–”
“Myffical, ye said,” Ang pointed out flatly.
“That’s the interesting part,” I interposed. “Despite all the stories, general consensus is that the thing doesn’t exist. You’d think it’d have turned up on the Black Market by now, if it did.”
It looks like Hansard’s been tasked with finding the legendary regenerating firebird, the phoenix. I bet you could give me the low-down on this one yourself. The phoenix lives forever, it ‘dies’ in a burst of flames, and it’s reborn from its own ashes. Just like the lovable Fawkes from Harry Potter. Right?
Right. Well, sort of.
The above clip, Peggy’s explanation from Episode 17, gives you the bare bones of some of the earliest accounts of the mythical phoenix. Travelling historian Herodotus ranks the phoenix among the sacred animals of the Eyptians (we’re talking 5th century B.C. here), though he takes care to mention he’s never seen the bird himself and he’s just retelling what the locals told him. According to his report, the phoenix has gold and red feathers and is about the size of an eagle. It apparently lives in Arabia and flies to a specific Egyptian temple (the temple of the Sun in Heliopolis) once every five hundred years. It makes this journey in order to rebirth its parent – the phoenix makes a shell out of myrrh and puts its parent inside, then carries it to the temple of the Sun. That’s all Herodotus says on the matter.
The implication seems to be that the old parent bird will be born anew from the egg of myrrh. The fact that this happens every five hundred years suggests the lifespan of the phoenix could be one millennium. (Think about it: the new bird hatches and flies back to Arabia – it brings its parent back to the temple in five hundred years; then five hundred years later the original phoenix is brought by its child to the temple.)
So far, no explicit mention of immortality, and certainly no flames or rising from the ashes involved.
It’s through this link with Egypt – and Heliopolis in particular – that we might find the deeper origins of the phoenix story. Heliopolis (or ‘City of the Sun’) was a big center of worship for the Egyptian sun-god Ra. The Egyptians had a sacred bird called the Bennu, a divine being that formed part of the soul of Ra. Predictably, the Bennu is associated with themes of creation and rebirth and may have been worshipped at Heliopolis as well. Seems probable that this strong link to the sun is what could have later led to the fiery nature of the phoenix. The Bennu bird looks more like a purple heron than the majestic, eagle-like form of the traditional phoenix, but I reckon it’s not too big a leap if you squint.
Back to the actual phoenix. Sorry, tangents. Can you tell I studied Ancient History? Totally putting that degree to good use.
In the clip above Peggy also mentions Pliny the Elder, another contemporary historian who records a ‘real’ phoenix presented to Roman Emperor Claudius (knocking around in the 1st century A.D.) but he rejects this ‘live specimen’ as an obvious fake. He gives us some more hearsay on the bird though, describing it as gold and purple over the body, with a long blue tail and a crest on the throat and neck. He tells us it has a sacred link to the sun (hello, Bennu origins?) and that when it’s time to die the phoenix will build a nest out of spices and perfumes, then lay down and die on it. From the nest a small worm emerges; the worm becomes a small bird, and then a full-grown phoenix. Still no fire.
Fast-forwarding a little to medieval Europe the story has morphed to include flames, and the echoes of both the Greek phoenix and the Egyptian Bennu run through it. Take this entry from the Aberdeen Bestiary (c. 1200 A.D.) as a prime example:
“The phoenix is a bird of Arabia, so called either because its colouring is Phoenician purple, or because there is only one of its kind in the whole world.
It lives for upwards of five hundred years, and when it observes that it has grown old, it erects a funeral pyre for itself from small branches of aromatic plants, and having turned to face the rays of the sun, beating its wings, it deliberately fans the flames for itself and is consumed in the fire.”
By this point in time the phoenix had become a popular symbol of rebirth across the world and in Christian and Jewish symbolism. Can’t tell you when fire became such a huge part of the story, though. Would be great if I could point at a specific record and go, “that one, guv”. Anyone out there got any leads on the subject?
Our snippet ends here, because if I go on any longer it’ll become an essay rather than a snippet. If you want to read more, there’s this book available through google.books preview that seems pretty interesting.
Thanks for reading; here’s hoping I managed to tell you something you didn’t already know 😛
(Warning! Spoilers ahead for Episode 14 of The Jack Hansard Series.)
It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these Folklore Snippets, but I suppose Hansard hasn’t run into many beasties lately – or at least, no beasties inspired by our own, real world folklore. Hansard’s adventures have begun to take a darker turn and I’ve relished the opportunity to flex my horror muscles. Episode 14: Lament of the Lake features a monster of particularly macabre origins: the lake-dwelling, child-murdering kelpie.
This aquatic terror hales from the high peaks and ice cold waters of Scotland. Like many mythological water-dwellers, the kelpie has the ability to shape-shift and often appears in human form. But if you catch one in its natural guise, kelpies take the shape of a wild horse.
Usually, the human form of a kelpie is male – in most of the tales which were written down in the nineteenth century, at least. Later on, artists began painting kelpies as scantily clad maidens reclining on the rocks, much like the sirens of Greek mythology. You can put this down to either innocent misinterpretation of the stories, or the perversion of renowned artistes and their rich audiences. I know which one my money’s on.
Kelpies sometimes retain their hooves when in human form: a dead give-away to look out for if you’re in the habit of being chatted up by handsome lakeside strangers. Also watch out for water weeds and sand in their hair. Being Scottish, it’s natural that the kelpie inhabits lakes and rivers rather than the coastline. I suppose that makes it a freshwater monster. And monster it certainly is: a common theme to kelpie stories is the drowning of children.
One tactic favoured by the kelpie is to appear at the water’s edge as a beautiful horse; imagine a glossy coat and a shimmering mane. It entices both adults and children to ride on its back, and as soon as you are aboard the kelpie gallops into the depths. It may then eat its hapless victims, allowing their entrails – a lone lung or liver – to wash up on shore afterwards.
Sometimes, the kelpie’s trick is simply to let you stroke it. Who can resist a noble horsey gently nuzzling your hand? But then, much like what happens to Toby Everest’s poor son, your hand sticks fast to the horse’s coat and the kelpie drags you into the water. If you’re quick-witted, you might manage to save yourself from a watery grave by cutting your fingers off – and in some tales this is how the victim survives. But usually the kelpie claims many lives: the kelpie of Sunart is said to have taken nine children. This, and many more tales of tragedy attributed to a water-horse superstition, are compiled in John Campbell’s Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
Thankfully, cutting off your fingers isn’t the only defence against a kelpie. There are a whole range of options for the monster hunters out there. You can outright kill one of the beasts by shooting it with a silver bullet, or, if one tale about a blacksmith is to be believed, merely poking them with hot iron will do the trick. If you can get the kelpie to appear in horse-form and find it to be wearing tack – that’s a bridle, saddle and other riding accoutrements to us non-horsey folk – remove the tack, and you’ve effectively disabled the kelpie, robbing it of its strength. Plus, that tack might have some nifty magic powers, such as turning humans into horses (or turning yourself half-kelpie, with the gift of second sight!). But what if your kelpie isn’t wearing a bridle? Have no fear – stick one on it! This would apparently capture the kelpie for your own amusement, trapping the creature in its horse shape and forcing it to obey your commands.
So what inspired the inception of this aquatic horror in the first place? The answer, I suspect, is so obvious it’s almost not worth pointing out. When you live in a place like Scotland, a landscape riddled with deep, unforgiving pools, it quickly becomes necessary to scare the bejeezus out of your children to keep them from playing too close to the water’s edge. Careless travellers who go for an ill-fated swim in a nearby lake get sucked into the rich body of folklore, and seeing as there is never a shortage of idiots, and Scotland certainly has no shortage of lakes, it’s a story that writes itself time after time and again.
So let that be a lesson to you, too: in all your wanderings, tread carefully by the lakeside, and be mindful of slippery rocks and treacherous weeds. And never, ever pet a strange horse by the water’s edge.
In the latest episode of the Jack Hansard series, Ang and Jack run into a river-dwelling creature going by the name of Shellycoat. The reason such sprites are given this name should be immediately clear: they wear a rattling coat of shells over their body.
Now, I admit I had some trouble tracking down solid information on Shelly. My first search turned up several sites which all carried the same basic description mimicked by Wikipedia. I don’t wish to become part of the same annoying cycle, but the basic impression is simply: the Shellycoat is Scottish; lives in lakes, rivers and streams; and, like almost every other folkloric creature, has a mischievous nature.
The one solid lead I had was the knowledge that Shelly is mentioned in Jacob Grimm’s (yep, of the famous Brothers Grimm) Deutsche Mythologie. After a rather frustrating time trying to pinpoint the correct volume and page number (vol 2, p.512 in this translation), it turned out to say very little. According to Grimm the Shellycoat is a type of goblin, and he confirms that it is a Scottish creature. He then likens it to a dwarfish thing who wears a bell-coat (which elsewhere I’ve seen called a ‘Schellenrock’ or ‘bell-coat’). The bells worn on the hats and coats of fools are apparently a reference to this ‘shrewd and merry’ goblin.
A more colourful view of the Shellycoat is provided by Walter Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish border (3rd ed), v1, which gives us an idea of the pranks Shelly like to play. Supposedly, he once led two travellers astray by calling out “Lost! Lost!” from the River Ettrick. The travellers followed this sound all night, assuming it to be a drowning person. They followed it all the way to the river’s source, only for the voice to head back down the river, back the way they had come. When they gave up their rescue effort, the Shellycoat revealed himself with laughter and applause, thoroughly amused with his own deception.
So Shelly may be a joker, but he seems to be fairly harmless, unlike a whole host of other water-dwellers whose sole intention was to lure travellers into the waves to drown.
It’s a bit funny that the most distinctive feature of the Shellycoat – y’know, his shelly coat – doesn’t seem to have much of a story to it. Does Shelly collect the shells himself? Does he wear them because they’re pretty or because they rattle in a musical way – like the bells the Schellenrock loves? Is it an actual garment like a coat, or more like a blanket-covering? I’m inclined to imagine the latter: picture this mass of shells creeping along the banks of a river, clinking and clacking as it moves. But it could be a more humanoid goblin like Grimm suggests; it might even help you around the home if you’re polite – so long as you don’t mind occasionally being tricked into a long walk down the river for no reason whatsoever.
In the most recent installment of the Jack Hansard series (Episode 6: Cockermouth), Jack doesn’t encounter any new beasties, but he does spend his time hawking occult amulets and magic potions. And seeing as he did business with a witch in Episode 5, it seems fitting that today’s Folklore Snippet should be on the subject of witchcraft.
Now, this is an immensely broad topic. Belief in magic seems to be as ancient as human society, and thus witchcraft (most simply defined as the practice of magic) has its roots spread all over the globe. ‘Witches’ may be defined as people who believe in magic and perform occult rituals or other actions to employ such power, or they may be thought of as healers and wise men and women whose knowledge sets them apart from others – in past cultures ‘wise one’ may have been synonymous with ‘witch’.
There are so many topics I could cover here it is unbelievable; I had so much trouble trying to decide whether to focus on the definitions of ‘witch’, the rituals of witchcraft, the history of it, the changing perceptions of it . . . In the end I’ve settled for a more concise angle. To try and keep this brief, we’re going to take a whistle-stop tour of some key texts that show us how witchcraft has been perceived in Western Europe.
In this region, witchcraft is closely tied to Christianity; the Bible makes a number of references to witchcraft as a manifestation of evil, the most succinct of which is: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’ (Exodus 22:18). No grey area there, then. Early Germanic law codes of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD (the Pactus Legis Alamannorum and Salic law) list witchcraft as a recognised crime (punishable by death, of course). They also more reasonably instruct that a false accusation will result in a fine for the accuser. To prove an accusation is false, the ‘witch’ would need twelve people to swear an oath on their innocence, or for a relative to defend them in a trial by combat.
Things get less reasonable as time progresses. Witchcraft, being associated with the old pagan beliefs and rituals, is of course demonised by the Church as time goes on – it gains strong connotations with the Devil and sin in much more specific terms (witches considered to be consorting with demons, for example).
In 1487 the Malleus Mallificarum was published. This text offers a description of witches and witchcraft, stating the notion of witchcraft to be a real thing, and firmly establishing the relationship between witch and Devil as one defined by a pact that grants evil powers. The main purpose of the treatise is to outline procedures for prosecuting a witch, from initially identifying them and then subsequently interrogating and convicting them – through legalised torture. The torture itself was in order to gain a confession, as a witch cannot be condemned to death without one. Handily for the prosecutor, if the accused refused to give a confession under torture, then it was a clear sign they were a witch – as they must have had the help of the Devil to withstand the pain.
This work might be considered the handbook for future witch hunters. The most infamous witch hunter of England was undoubtedly Matthew Hopkins, whose career (killing spree) flourished during the Civil War in the 1640s. Torture was far from legal, but Hopkins’ methods were similarly inhumane: techniques ranged from depriving the accused of rest and forcing them to walk until their feet blistered; to throwing them into water while tied to a chair (witches, being unbaptised, would float due to the water physically repelling them). And you’ve probably heard about the practice of pricking the skin to identify a witch – birth marks, moles, anything that could be construed as a witch’s teat (for her demonic familiar to suck upon). If the pricked area did not bleed, then she must be a witch. And of course, the inquisitors were not above using cunning, retracting pins . . .
Hopkins published his own treatise on witchcraft, detailing his justifications for the above methods to identify witches: The Discovery of Witches. It’s written like a ye olde FAQ on the subject. Although Hopkins doesn’t have sole credit for developing and employing such methods, his publication of them may have helped to spur the witch hunting craze that ensued in the New England colonies. Incidentally, you’ve probably heard of the mass hysteria surrounding the Salem witch trials of 1692; the English equivalent in terms of fame would likely be the Pendle witch trial of 1612 where 20 individuals were prosecuted.
I’m not sure if I should delve into modern witchcraft – the origins and philosophy of Wicca probably deserve an article of their own. In brief, modern witchcraft is a somewhat organised pagan religion, arguably founded by the writings of Margaret Murray and Gerald Gardner, but also echoing plenty of long-established pagan traditions. The central tenet, as I understand it, is simply ‘do no harm’ (but as with any religion there are many branches; a number of which would probably tell me my understanding is incorrect). If you’ve read Episode 6 you’ll see that Hansard’s views of this group are less than flattering, but as for my personal views I’m more of an ‘each to their own’ kind of person. In a world full of odd religions (all of them are odd) and funny traditions, it seems you can do a lot worse for your life philosophy than ‘do no harm’.
So that’s a snippet on witchcraft. You’ve no idea how hard it was to keep this short – I thoroughly recommend following the links for more interesting reading. See you next time~
If you missed it, Episode 5 of the Hansard series went live as usual yesterday. There were so many folkloric elements to this story that I almost found it hard to pick a focus for today’s Folklore Snippet: Jack encounters a witch, a troll, and gives us an idea of the supernatural properties of iron. But as Episode 5 is titled ‘Troll’ it seemed only fair to put this beastie in the spotlight.
Trolls have their origins in the Old Norse legends of Scandinavia where they seem to be related to (or synonymous with) the Norse giants: gigantic, god-battling creatures – essentially the main antagonists of the Universe. Trolls may be descended from these titans, but they are considered a distinct, separate species. They are said to prefer living in remote locations away from human habitation, such as forests, mountains and caves. As for their appearance, the consensus is that they are often large and ugly, with a humanoid shape and dim-witted brains.
The story that you are most likely to have heard sometime in your life is the children’s tale of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. The troll in this story lives under a bridge and has ‘eyes as big as saucers, and a nose as long as a poker’. Three billy goats cross his bridge, one by one. The smallest comes first, and persuades the troll that it would rather eat the next billy goat who is larger, thus a better meal. The second billy goat pulls the same trick as the first. The final billy goat is so big and strong that it overpowers the troll: in the wonderfully gory fashion of many old children’s tales, the goat gores out the troll’s eyes and crushes him to bits.
Another characteristic of trolls is their aversion to sunlight, which some say goes as far as causing trolls to turn to stone during daylight. In modern storytelling the most obvious example that springs to mind is J.R.R. Tolkien’s trolls in The Hobbit. Here the gluttonous, man-eating trolls are distracted by the tale’s resident wizard and tricked into arguing until dawn, at which point they turn to stone.
And if we’re talking about trolls in literature, I feel this Snippet wouldn’t be complete without a look at the trolls of the Discworld. You may have heard that the comic fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett sadly died today. That ‘sadly’ cannot even begin to convey the magnitude of this loss to the world. As a writer he helped me think Big Thoughts from a young age and convinced me of the true importance of storytelling in both evaluating and maintaining our humanity. The man has been my foremost literary idol since I was a teenager, and I am so grateful to have been shaped by his work.
The trolls of Discworld are typically mountain-dwellers and might classify as geography in their own right, being made of stones and minerals. They have silicon brains which overheat during the day: this accounts for their lack of intelligence during the daytime and naturally nocturnal behaviour. A neat play on the traditional portrayal of trolls turning to stone during daylight (perhaps that oddly shaped boulder you passed is merely sleeping?) Unlike their traditional counterparts, which eat human food (and, indeed, humans) Discworld trolls usually live on a diet of rocks and mineral-based drinks (it is no longer considered polite to eat humans on the Disc). Over the course of a series spanning more than 40 novels, we’ve seen trolls evolve from simple, stupid creatures that can be chained up like guard dogs, to a sophisticated people with their own rich culture, religion, and history. My favourite troll, and perhaps the most well-known, could only be Detritus – we see him go from being moronic hired muscle to a respected (and feared) member of the City Watch. He’s like the antithesis of the traditional Scandinavian troll: he’s dependable, he learns, he makes friends with an arch enemy, he falls in love, he catches bad guys (and most of the time they even remain in one piece).
Pratchett’s representation of trolls is so distinctive that today I have trouble visualising tolls as anything other than walking boulders with a fine spread of lichen across their broad shoulders. Turns out, in more traditional representations trolls are far closer to humans than rocks. Although generally ugly, some stories centre on the idea that a troll can even be mistaken for a human being, particularly where a troll parent decides to swap their baby troll for one of our human babies. The troll baby grows up with no one the wiser, but everyone suffers from the bad behaviour of this switched child. The inner ugliness of trolls is one of their most unifying features, manifesting in a bad temper and sloppy manners.
Whether trolls should be considered inherently evil seems to be an ambiguous topic. Certain breeds of troll are apparently kind, good-natured entities, like the farm-dwelling Tomtes and Nissen who bring good luck and help look after the animals. Despite this, if you ever met one, I think it would be hard to look past the old stories of human-eating trolls. But I, for one, would not pass up the chance to meet a troll of Detritus’ ilk.
Farewell, Sir Terry Pratchett. Thank you for the Big Thoughts dressed up in little stories.
“All right,” said Susan, “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need … fantasies to make life bearable.”
NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers?”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. DUTY. MERCY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
REALLY? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET YOU ACT, LIKE THERE WAS SOME SORT OF RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes. But people have got to believe that or what’s the point?”
MY POINT EXACTLY.
Episode 4: Coal and Pies is now live. This week concludes the story of Hansard’s dealings with the reclusive Coblynau, featuring pies, coal, and a brush with death.
The newest creature Hansard encounters in this escapade is the mysterious Bluecap. Related to the Welsh Coblynau and Cornish Knockers, this creature also lives in mines. Unlike Knockers, it doesn’t have a humanoid appearance. The Bluecap is said to appear as a blue flame and might be a kind of ghost or fairy creature. Like the Knockers, Bluecaps seem to have honest, hard-working motives: some miners have claimed to see them transporting full tubs of coal about the mine – the job of a ‘putter’, in mining terms.
The Bluecap would also lead miners to rich deposits, so long as they were treated respectfully. It’s a recurring theme that insulting folkloric creatures will only result in mischief. But some of these creatures are more mischievous than others, like the mine-dwelling Cutty Soames. I’ve seen Cutty Soames referred to as an ‘elf’, so I think of him as a cousin to the Knockers. He is named for his most unhelpful habit, the cutting of the ropes (‘soames’) that connected the putter to the coal-tub. When I learned this I couldn’t help but name the treacherous character in Episode 4 after him, it fit so nicely.
Both the Bluecap and Cutty Soames are described in an article in the Colliery Guardian of May 13th, 1863. The writer describes them both as a type of goblin or elf, and of Cutty Soames says:
‘He rejoiced in the name of “Cutty Soams,” and appears to have amused himself by severing the rope-traces or soams, by which an assistant-putter, honoured by the title of “the fool “, is yoked to the tub. The strands of hemp which were left all sound in the board at “kenner-time,” were found next morning severed in twain. “Cutty Soams” has been at work, could the fool and his driver say, dolefully knotting the cord.’
About the Bluecap, we are told that it expects to be paid the same wages as a putter, once a fortnight. Allegedly the Bluecap will only take its due, no more nor less. Wages were left in a specific corner of the mine, and would disappear overnight. (Methinks a human miner came away a little richer from that transaction.)
It’s easy to see how a mine can be a rich environment for the evolution of mythic creatures. With no end of strange sounds, knocking, dripping, whistling, and a constant threat of danger – think sudden cave-ins and fire-damp explosions – it’s a smorgasbord of possibilities for ghosts and goblins to take the credit. I know if I was a miner, alone in the dark with only a mysterious knocking for company, I’d like to think that I simply had a non-human companion hard at work on just the other side of my seam. And if I escaped a collapse with just seconds to spare, I know I’d be putting out food or money to help keep the critters on my side. Danger breeds superstition, and we all feel safer with the thought that something might be looking out for us in those situations.
An addendum: Last time I ended with a section on Welsh words used by the Coblynau. I want to take a moment to talk about just one more: gwas.
When working out how the Coblyn Ang speaks, I wanted to give her a nickname she could call Hansard, something that fit snugly anywhere in a sentence. Ideally, something akin to the word ‘mate’ in English. An initial Google of the word told me that gwas might be a slang term for mate or boyo, and it sounded perfect. However, a more direct translation tells us that gwas actually means ‘servant’ or ‘lad’ in a similar sense.
After some thought I decided this fit nicely. Assuming that Coblynau slang might be different from modern Welsh anyway, a derogatory nickname with a servile meaning at its roots was perfectly suitable. Plus, it sounded snappy.
Am I over-thinking this? You betcha! But detail makes me happy.
Thanks for reading, folks. Here’s the further reading list if it floats your boat: